At first glance, the communities of Findlay, St. Clairsville and Portsmouth may look like they don’t have much in common. Add in communities like Ravenna, Xenia and Mansfield and the connections become even more muddled.
Taking these communities and a couple more dozen in size, the Center for Community Solutions has come out with an interesting report that takes a look at life in these small Ohio cities. The report not only goes in depth with what is occurring in these twenty-seven “heartland” cities, but they also compare interesting data points in these communities to the state’s “Big Eight” cities (Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Akron, Canton, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown).
What the report outlined is something that was jarring at first glance, life in Ohio’s heartland cities is even more difficult than in the state’s urban core communities, let alone the affluent suburbs of these communities.
For most of these communities, their economies are still driven largely by manufacturing concerns and has time and innovation has marched on, these communities have largely been left behind.
These smaller cities don’t have the diversified service-based economic services that larger cities (or even smaller cities with public or private colleges) have and their median family incomes aren’t up to par with the state average, coming in at just a shade under $47,000 per year.
And the issues these small towns face aren’t just economic; the ramifications are being felt in social and health indicators as well.
For example, from 2010-2014 Medicare and Medicaid insured over 40 percent of the population in these small cities, compared to 38 percent in Ohio’s largest cities. In addition, 34 percent of all children in these communities are living at or below poverty levels; children in these small cities are four times more likely to live in poverty than those living in suburban communities. Even more shocking is that teenage birth rates are 31 births per 1,000; twice the state average.
While the problems facing Ohio’s smaller communities are intense and their consequences far reaching, the report begins to scratch the surface of how to begin to address some of these problems facing communities that are often left behind.
One of the over-arching recommendations of the report was that smaller communities must do a better job of engaging citizens and begin advocating for solutions not only in their own communities, but also on larger platforms as well.
Attention to concerns of small town America is often given short shrift. On a local level, smaller newspapers are now just beginning to shrug off the effects of the great recession and while they may be getting to a point that is strong, they are now working in an environment where people from all walks of life are now using social media as a place for information and interaction. The local daily newspaper, once seen as the marketplace of ideas in small town America, is quickly becoming archaic.
Even with the explosion of large traditional media outlets such as cable television, again not much attention is paid to small town concerns. Rather, these discussions turn to larger issues such as national politics, international affairs and climate change.
These effects are damaging small towns by zapping civic capacity in many different levels. Not only are there are not the platforms that once existed to talk about and discuss important issues facing these communities, average citizens may feel powerless to make changes in their own community (especially when they see a whole nation consumed by a declining political rhetoric play out daily on their television set).
Ohio’s smaller communities continue to need strong advocates. If not the squeeze of human service agencies will continue to be felt not just in urban areas, but also in rural communities that may not have the necessary infrastructure in place to serve those that need help the most.
As we enter the New Year, the best part is that you can be part of the solution. Begin to understand what local human service providers are facing in your community. There are multiple opportunities for you to get involved in your own community and begin to make the change that needs to happen to protect our small cities for generations to come.
William “Bill” Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.